In February, we publish All the Women She Knows, Tutku Barbaros’s debut collection of short stories about women who are discovering their own paths, in their own ways – and the growing pains and difficult decisions that come with deciding to choose themselves.

Today, we’re sharing an extract from one of these stories. In ‘Ash and Han’, we meet a woman waiting in a restaurant for her friend to show up. Here’s Tutku, discussing the story:

‘This is a story about two people from different class and cultural backgrounds who formed a friendship while away from home in the bubble of university. Ash, eldest daughter and first in the family to go to university, is an ambitious, world-aware woman who finds herself sat like — like a lemon — waiting in a restaurant for Han to turn
up — again!

As Ash waits for Han to show, she contemplates their relationship and recollects a series of moments which she now sees through a more nuanced lens. She starts to question the role privilege, entitlement and lack of self-awareness has played in the dynamic between them. Ash has brushed so much under the carpet for so long that she is beginning to feel weakened by it all: she’s experiencing a broken heart. We meet her as it quietly dawns on her that it’s time to let go of the friendship. 

I think it’s a huge marker of maturity and growth when you can look at your inner circle and say ‘no, but who do I really want here and who really wants me?’ Anyone trying to be their best self, boundaries and all, knows that part of that journey requires extricating yourself from disingenuous relationships. This doesn’t mean to say the process isn’t gutting (a break-up is a break-up at the end of the day!) but it is necessary. 
It might seem odd, in a book about sisterhood, to have a friendship break-up. But it’s precisely because of my belief that women need to find their sisterhood that I wrote this story: sometimes things must end so better things can begin. Untrue relationships need to fall away, so true sisters can be let in.’

Read an extract below, and order All the Women She Knows: Stories of Growth, Change and Sisterhood to read the story in full.

Ash has been waiting for Han for an hour.
Usually this is fine because Ash will bring snacks and a bit of work
to do, some reading or a list of emails to flick through. But Han had
promised to be on time. Though Ash has a lot on her plate, it was
effort enough – in streams of half-read messages – to even save the
date, let alone re-arrange.
And crucially, she thought Han would show up on time – or at
least she’d hoped.

Ash met Han at university.
Not in the usual way. Not in the way of glow sticks and shot glasses.
No, it was a life drawing class,
eyes meeting across a voluminous naked arse.
One sketching in charcoal, the other in oil pastel.

One quite good,
The other brilliant.
Han taking the piss
while Ash focused.
Han fluttered her way in with a blagged free pass,
whereas Ash had saved, signed up and committed to each and
every class.
One week they all turned up to find their teacher had cancelled.
Han suggested they all go to the pub instead,
and Ash jumped at the chance because, so far, she hadn’t done the
best job of making friends.
By the third round of cider and black Ash and Han were fascinated
by each other.
Making each other laugh in the corner,
discovering a shared sense of humour,
they left last, swapped numbers and started meeting up on campus.
Always being hushed in the library and racing to the student bar
after lectures.
They were best together when they were hungover.
Both liked their personal space but neither liked being totally alone
so they’d sit on the same blue sofa
but at separate ends,
a wall of snacks between them.
Pyjamas and pasta,
last night’s make-up rubbed into the pillow,
last night’s outfit strewn across the floor.

They would watch sitcoms or makeover shows and they would never
ever, ever, debrief about the night before.
Ash knew that, for Han, the night out was always a blur as soon as
it was done,
she was one of those people who would sit an exam and
then all thought of it would leave her head.

Ash, on the other hand, would agonise throughout and then re-agonise again about what she remembered writing for question x,

y and z.

What Ash lost sleep over, Han had already forgotten
What Ash thought about most, Han was barely bothered by.

One lived a life without accountability.
The other was detail, replay and memory.

Except for when she couldn’t bear to be

Exams tended to tear the tender in them apart:
Because Ash was a clever girl for sure, but also, she worked hard,
really hard.
Han would sit in the sun all day reading non-coursework books,
while Ash was always deep in her studies, deeper in her thoughts,
not just because she wanted the grades, but because she needed a
way out.

For Han, university was just something to do, because why not?
But Ash was the first in her family to be there, so it really meant
something, it meant a lot.

Ash wanted to make her mark, wanted to be part of creating a
better world.
On her back were things she ached to start and cycles she yearned
to stop.

In her heart there were things she was scared to want.

Some days all of this added up to too much.
Too much responsibility,
too much tide to change,
too much too close, yet, too much out of range,
and it was on those days that Han would be most amazing,
would sweep in with prosecco and crisps, reminding Ash she didn’t
owe anyone anything.
It was on those days, Han showed Ash how to be selfish
and Ash had been grateful for this.
Through these moments Ash had come to learn:
prioritising her needs was a particular way to break a particular
but she didn’t notice how innately and inherently Han always put
herself first.

In truth, neither had ever had a friend like the other
And the joy of that contrast had lasted many years.

Once upon a time Ash had decided that Han was helping her
become her own person.
With Han she didn’t need to be the eldest daughter.
No responsibilities to fulfil and no example to set.
When she was with Han, all Ash had to do was enjoy one haphazard
night out after the next.
Han always encouraging Ash to tell her family she wouldn’t be
home again this weekend with a quick text:
‘That way they won’t plead with you down the line, and you can
decide when to reply.’
Ash would feel uncertain, but Han would roll cigarettes and say,
‘It’s fine, it’s fine,
you’re changing the narrative.’

They’d had very few conversations about each other’s home lives.
And yet, Han was always certain she knew all of Ash’s story.
So what was it that made Han feel so qualified?

Thinking about it now, Ash knows the answer is stereotypes.
She hates that she let her family down all those times.
The thought makes all the muscles in Ash’s jaw go hard.
Her shoulders try to meet her ears.
She becomes inordinately aware of her chest.
Of her heart beating inside said chest.
She realises she’s been ripping the menu.
She looks at the tatters on the table and feels embarrassed.
She thinks about her lungs, she wonders if they peer through the
French door slats of her rib cage and wonder what the fuck is going
on out there? She imagines them as a pair of nosy neighbours
complaining about all the pollution and smoking outside.
She thinks about the way the heart is a muscle.
She doesn’t want hers to keep aching like this.
Being constantly let down by the person who is meant to be her best
friend has made Ash feel weaker and weaker – so she is considering
now what she needs to do to make herself stronger –

‘Hiya – just checking if I can get you anything?’

A new waitress, different to the one who showed her to the table,
arrives. Her hair is a gala of purples and her smile subtle.
She pours Ash a fresh glass of water. In the middle of the carafe is a
large and phallic piece of coal. The waitress is trying not to look at
it, but Ash is fixated. Their eyes meet in the middle and they share
a laugh. The waitress explains,

‘It purifies the water. Apparently.’

They share another laugh as the waitress begins to tell Ash that
there’s been a change.

‘There certainly has,’ Ash says, accidentally out loud.
‘. . . In that brunch has turned to lunch. . . But you look like
brunch wasn’t doing it for you anyway.’

The waitress picks up the shreds of paper and asks
‘Do you have any dietary requirements?’

‘It’s nice to be asked,’ thinks Ash as she has a flashback of a party
at Han’s parents’ house
(which was neat and all fresh flowers-y. Filled with photos of everywhere Han and her family had been, whereas Ash’s was full of pictures of the places they’re from).

Ash was at the buffet
when Han’s aunt introduced herself.

‘Lovely to meet you, I’m Ash.’
‘Oh. That’s a lovely nickname, but what were you Christened?’
‘Errr. . . no, I wasn’t Christened anything.’

Ash left some space for the lady to think again but she just
looked blank, and then:
‘Anyway, would you like a slice of the ham?’
‘Ha, you’re really not getting it, are you?’

The aunt had gawped on, confused.

Then Han came over giggling at the reprimand she could see brewing in Ash’s eyes and whispered:

‘Oh, come on Ash, not everyone knows someone like you!’

Mid mouthful of brie:
‘Someone like me?’

Han could have said something – anything – useful. But she didn’t.
She just laughed
Rolled her eyes in her aunt’s direction and led Ash away.

With retrospect, sometimes it felt like Han wore Ash like a badge.
With retrospect, no one ever asked Han, what Han was short for.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this extract. Read the rest of the story and ten others in All the Women She Knows: Stories of Growth, Change and Sisterhood.

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